“the very instrinsic traits of their culture”: Lamanites and the Construction of Religiosity

By March 11, 2009

I recently completed reading Curtis J. Evans’s excellent new book, The Burden of Black Religion. In his book, Evans examines the various ways that African American religion and religiosity has been thought of and characterized from the early 19th century through the mid-20th century. Although “what it meant to be religious was often shaped by the politics of the interpreter and evolving debates about the value of a certain kind of religion,” Evans writes, blacks in America have consistently been characterized as “innately religious.” This innate religiosity “could mean ‘feeling’ or ’emotion’ that was said to be unique to blacks and a complement to the ‘rational’ faith of whites. . . . Or it could mean the ‘degraded’ practices of the native African that appeared to be what some called ‘religion.”[1]

While reading, I wondered whether a similar dynamic exists within Mormonism regarding general attitudes towards “Lamanite” peoples. Upon my arrival in Arizona as a missionary, I was assigned to serve on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. One of the first points of instruction I received was to keep things simple and focus all of my teaching efforts on helping these “Lamanites” feel the spirit. They could learn about the gospel later, I was instructed. Videos and hymn singing worked well; lengthy reading assignments did not. I was also told that they would often experience spiritual manifestations in the form of dreams and/or visions. An old roommate who served in Tonga echoed my experience with his own recounting of similar advice from his American companions. The implication was that the “Lamanites” were somehow naturally more spiritual (meaning more prone to charismatic spiritual gifts) and less interested in intellectual pursuit of gospel study.

More recently, I came across an interesting booklet in the BYU library entitled The Gospel in Central America: A Phenomenon of Response and Frustration. Authored by F. Lamond Tullis in 1963, it was written in response to (then Assistant to the Twelve) Boyd K. Packer’s solicitation of Tullis’s “ideas concerning the Saints in Central America.”[2] While much of the 44-page essay focuses on the need to assist in improving the socio-economic conditions of the people in Central America, one section of the first chapter addressed “The Indian and Christianity.”

As is the case with many primitive and semi-primitive peoples, the Indians of Central America are highly traditionalized, and their legends and traditions engage much of their life. …

As the missionaries approach the Indian with the gospel for the first time, they have a novel experience. Their attempts to indoctrinate and ‘prove’ the gospel is of little importance to him, for he has been rejecting this approach for four hundred and fifty years. The real common basis for preaching the gospel to him, and his understanding of it, is simply through the medium of spiritual experience. …

The Indians’ religion is not entirely Christian, nor is it entirely pagan. It is an admixture which retains an inherent concept of ‘spiritual meaning’ with it. This is one reason the Indian reponds so favorably when a Mormon Elder approaches him spiritually. It is the type of contact he seeks and desires. …

By establishing spiritual meaning with them as an integral part of the gospel, the objectionable parts of their religious traditions begin to fade away, for they now have an alternative, an acceptable alternative, a true alternative. This is one basic reason why, in spite of their traditions, they make excellent members of the church.

It is evident that even a limited gospel approach to these people can utilize to advantage the very intrinsic traits of their culture which have produced many objectionable traditions. It just happens to be that some of these traits facilitate the establishment of a true gospel contact with them, one based on spirituality. Thus, to manifestly attempt to change their culture is impractical and unwise; to use it is advantageous.[3]

I am interested in everyone’s general reaction to Tullis’s characterization of Indian religion, and especially interested in any other LDS sources people may know of that address these issues (that is, linking one’s race with an inherent or natural religiosity). Are the anecdotal notes from my own experience and the view articulated by Tullis a commonly-held idea historically within Mormonism? What about in the contemporary church? Are particular and different expressions of religiosity tied closely with other races in Latter-day Saint thought?


[1] Curtin J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 4.

[2] F. Lamond Tullis, The Gospel in Central America: A Phenomenon of Response and Frustration (n.p., July 1963), iii.

[3] Tullis, The Gospel in Central America, 7-9. Underlining in original.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. You might also want to look at discourses having to do with blood. There are a lot of Mormon quotes about finding the blood of Lehi and of Israel among indigenous peoples. This has been used as an explanation for focusing on Natives in missionary work. And when missionary work among Indians has cooled off or failed, blood has been used again to argue that certain tribes must not be direct descendants of Lehi.

    If you want to follow the culture thread further, you need to put the Tullis booklet in context. Shortly after its publication, BYU discussed banning powwow dances from the campus. These remnants of Lamanite culture were seen as counterproductive for Indian members who were making progress in the gospel. This phase lasted for just a short while, and by about 1970 BYU had become more multicultural. You could also follow Mormon perceptions of Native American innate religiosity by studying the curriculum of the Indian seminary program.

    Comment by Sterling Fluharty — March 11, 2009 @ 9:58 am

  2. Thanks for all of the suggestions, Sterling (especially the suggestion to explore the curriculum of the Indian seminary program).

    Re: believing blood … I’ve researched this some, but mostly in the context of 19th century missionary efforts in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. It is probably worth noting that Tullis focuses much of his attention on Guatemala (at least in part) because “the great predominance of relatively pure indigenous membership is found in Guatemala,” and “among the some 10,000 members of the Church in Central America, approximately 1,000 are of relatively pure Lamanite lineage (Mayan)” (pp. ii-iii).

    Comment by Christopher — March 11, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

  3. Fascinating stuff, Chris. This reminds me of Heidi’s posts/paper on Japanese believing blood when compared to the Chinese at the turn of the century. It also reminds me of JS’s thought that the Holy Ghost has a completely different effect on a gentile as opposed to someone of the House of Israel.

    Definitely some themes that persist for quite a while. (and even today according to your missionary stories.)

    Comment by Ben — March 11, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

  4. I definitely grew up, living on the Texas-Mexico border, with the idea of Lamanites being more spiritual, having greater spiritual gifts, or being more prone to spiritual manifestations, but you’re asking about Indian religion, and I don’t know that I’ve heard much about religion so much as blood being the key factor for increased spirituality.

    Comment by Jared T — March 11, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

  5. Although it is fairly typical of the time period, I find Tullis’ use of gender to structure his argument informative. “The Indian” is always assumed to be male, thereby subsuming and marginalizing feminine cultural characteristics. This is especially interesting given that “primitive” peoples are usually constructed as feminine, in need of the guidance of “masculine” Western cultures.

    Comment by David G. — March 11, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

  6. Thanks for reminding me of Heidi’s research, Ben.

    Jared, thanks for weighing in. When you say you grew up with that idea, does that mean you were taught that in the home? At church? Can you elaborate anymore?

    David, I picked up on the consistent use of “he” and “him” as well. Thanks for bringing gender into the dicussion.

    Comment by Christopher — March 11, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

  7. I suspect Tullis’ use of culture as an explanatory device reflects an academic shift away from essentializing race (i.e., blood) to explain indigenous groups.

    Comment by David G. — March 11, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

  8. “. . . and especially interested in any other LDS sources people may know of that address these issues (that is, linking one?s race with an inherent or natural religiosity).”

    While I am not a fan of Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, it is probably a good indicator of a variety of doctrines which were viewed as mainstream by many mid-twentieth-century Latter-day Saints. So here is McConkie’s entry on “Believing Blood,” transcribed here from my first edition (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1958):

    Believing Blood. See Adoption, Belief, Faith, Foreordination, Israel, Pre-existence. This is a figurative expression commonly used to designate the aptitude and inclination of [p. 77 ends] certain persons to accept and believe the principles of revealed religion. In general, the Lord sends to earth in the lineage of Jacob those spirits who in pre-existence developed an especial talent for spirituality and for recognizing truth. Those born in this lineage, having the blood of Israel in their veins and finding it easy to accept the gospel, are said to have believing blood.
    Since much of Israel has been scattered among the Gentile nations, it follows that millions of people have mixed blood, blood that is part Israel and part Gentile. The more of the blood of Israel that an individual has, the easier it is for him to believe the message of salvation as taught by the authorized agents of the Lord. This principle is the one our Lord had in mind when he said to certain Jews: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. . . . but ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.” (John 10:14, 26-27.) [pp. 77-78; elipses in the original]

    Comment by Rick Grunder — March 11, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  9. Chris,

    In the home as well as “at Church”, not officially, but it was (is?) a part of the popular culture.

    Comment by Jared T — March 11, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

  10. Good call, David (#7).

    Thanks for the additional source, Rick.

    Thanks Jared. Interesting.

    Comment by Christopher — March 12, 2009 @ 9:11 am

  11. Chris – This is fascinating stuff and cries out for a lengthier analysis. Jonathan Z. Smith has written some interesting stuff that might apply here; it has to do with the problem of defining what precisely ‘religion’ is. According to Smith, observers tend to, in an ultimately arbitrary fashion, cherry-pick a set of cultural traits in whatever society they’re studying and label them collectively a discreet ‘religion.’ As the postmodernists have taught us, this is inevitably a power play, saying as much about the observers as the observed.

    Comment by matt b. — March 12, 2009 @ 11:50 am

  12. no matter what church doctrine and leaders have said about “Lamanites” it all comes back to the social attitudes of the time period they were living in, even currently to some degree there is a this idea that there is a Noble and Ignoble view of “lamanites”

    as far as this thought about Indian religion vs. blood as being the indicaor for spiritualness….most early church members usually focused on “Lamanite” lore for how suggestible these “Lamanites” were to Mormonism…many of these lores can be attributed by Mormons to relating to “lamanite” blood as being the reason….in early Mormon history, i’ve seen most Mormons indicate that “lamanite” religion is pagen, a term which is usually associated as being negative.

    #1. sterling’s, comment about “lamanite” missions that fail, and the reason given as they are not of the blood of lehi brings up another question, with the new intro to The Book of Mormon, i wonder if many of these “Lamanite” tribes that were directly prophised as being of a certain lineage….would they still make the cut as being part of that lineage?

    Comment by corey s. — September 23, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  13. I see no indication Tullis is referring to “blood” or “race,” rather, “culture.”

    Comment by Brad V. — October 21, 2009 @ 4:26 pm


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